Feminist Friday: Feminism’s Forgotten Name

Maxine Hong Kingston is one of many feminists engaged in what we would today call intersectional theorizing, though she was writing in that mode at least two decades before Crenshaw would give activists the term intersectionality. Her book of fables and thought, The Woman Warrior (1976), has gone on to be a university staple in many different disciplines. The Woman Warrior is taught so widely, in fact, that the Washington Post includes in a piece about the book and its prominence:

It gained a following that seems, if anything, to have increased over the years.

Thus, for example, Bill Moyers has reported that “The Woman Warrior” and Kingston’s second memoir, “China Men” (1980), are the most widely taught books by a living American author on college campuses today, which echoes a claim made by the Modern Language Association. This rather astonishing information no doubt reflects the various categories of political and cultural opinion to which Kingston’s work appeals, but it also means that “The Woman Warrior” is probably one of the most influential books now in print in this country — and certainly one of the most influential books with a valid claim to literary recognition.


It is hard to find the MLA claim to which author Jonathan Yardley refers, but references to the MLA as supporting the widely taught nature of The Woman Warrior are common, and as the MLA sells a book for instructors/professors specifically on how to the book, what pedagogical goals can be supported by its text, and how best to bring out specific lessons contained in Hong Kingston’s words, I’m sure that the statement does exist in some form. Meanwhile, we can look to the paper Genre-Crossing: Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Its Discursive Community by Hsiu-chuan Lee to get at the point:

The Woman Warrior‘s circulation enacts a discursive community crossing the boundaries of genres/disciplines. It is taught in courses and departments ranging from composition, American culture, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and popular culture to postmodernism and serves as rhetorical model, autobiography, biography and even historiography.

The point about a discursive community is important. Though you might have encountered the text in a sociology course and taken certain lessons from the text that strongly interacted with your class’s focus on the experience of emigration/immigration, others might have read the text for a gender studies course in which the text was primarily examined through a lens of womanhood, attempting to portray the commonalities in women’s experiences across distance and time. Nonetheless, all those who spent time with the book can come together around it and make valid observations about it: the books depth and capacity to communicate interacts with our own lives so that each of us take away only portions of the available wisdom, yet it is possible in discussion with others to relearn the book from their perspective and for those others to relearn it from our own. The Woman Warrior is literally memoir, but literarily a hearth, something around which we can gather, giving us not only the opportunity to tell our own stories, but a feeling of warmth and community while we do so.

Yet despite the frequency with which Hong Kingston’s books are assigned and the deeply personal nature of the revelations she includes in her work, Hong Kingston herself too rarely seems to be recognized, her name too little remembered.*1 While Kimberlé Crenshaw’s name will be forever associated with intersectionality, the very universality of Hong Kingston’s work seems to make it impossible for activists to credit her with any particular innovation or accomplishment. Like the woman who lights and tends the hearth, she may not be responsible for nourishing any person that hungers or saving any one traveler from the cold or pouring any one cup of tea that welcomes a family member returning home. Yet, she makes all these things possible.

Perhaps it would be inappropriate, then, to reduce the scope of Hong Kingston’s contributions by assigning her a single more-specific role. Perhaps it is good that no one activist, educational, or thought tradition claims her as its own. Still, the nebulous nature of the credit we give to the words of this woman that seem to fill the air around us obscures opportunities to see the woman herself, still alive, still writing, still lecturing, and decidedly still relevant.

It is exactly that relevance that causes me to choose Hong Kingston as the first subject of my soon-to-be-regular Feminist Friday series. In The Woman Warrior, several classic folk tales of Chinese origin are told to us by the narrator, then reflected upon and interpreted. The first of these tales is that of No Name Woman. No Name Woman is the story of a woman who finds herself pregnant in impossible circumstances. There is an attack on her home when her pregnancy is discovered by others, an attack by a crowd that would need little stretching to fit the frame provided by the word riot. Without options for supporting herself and her child, she suffers through months of shaming and abuse before giving birth in the dirt and throwing herself and her child into a well to drown. Though her family (in the guise of Hong Kingston’s mother, who told the story to Hong Kingston) appears to feel some remorse about the bad ending to her life, it is that same family that abandons No Name Woman’s name in the well that still contains her body.

Hong Kingston wonders in the text about the accuracy of her mother’s story. Is it literally true? Did it happen in the way her mother relates the events? Was there even a fabula before story before text? Perhaps the life of No Name Woman has been created to be the cautionary story of Any/Every Woman, with the fabula as malleable as the text, so long as the important story is served?

Though The Woman Warrior is a story of distinctly Chinese experience and character, this Any/Every Woman speculation of Hong Kingston’s narrator invites us to examine our own lives, for any No Name Woman of our own. When we seek, she is not hard to find. Yesterday, PZ brought our attention to this piece in The NewYorker by Kate Daloz. Assuming that you are already familiar with the story from PZ’s post and Daloz’s article, let me focus on this:

I realized later that it wasn’t the topic of abortion itself that made her so uneasy—she was a nurse and a Roe-era feminist who usually responded straightforwardly to even the most embarrassing health questions. Rather, her anguish arose from sharing a truth that she’d been brought up believing was too terrible to speak.

There is little to distinguish these white American tragedies from the tragedy of No Name Woman, but we can still learn from Hong Kingston. In the China of Hong Kingston’s mother the fate of No Name Woman was easily (and widely) related, although it could never be connected with the name of a specific woman. In the  Vermont of Daloz’s mother, the same was true, though the mechanism of concealment was different. For Daloz, the name Winifred Haynes Mayer was easily spoken, but her family had never allowed itself to connect the name with the tragedy forced upon her by a judgmental, almost absolutist social milieu.

These may be superficially different, but ask the question: if Hong Kingston’s mother had told her stories about the life of a named woman, stories unconnected with drowning in the bottom of a well, how would Hong Kingston ever know whether that lively aunt or cousin or grandmother was or was not the same human life whose death was passed to No Name Woman? Do we know that No Name Woman was never named, or only that the fate of the woman who died from an unintended, unwelcome pregnancy could never be connected with her name?

So read Daloz, speak of Winifred Haynes Mayer, of Virginia, New York and Vermont, of Roe, of the Supreme Court of the United States, of Christian theocracy and American sexism. But read The Woman Warrior as well. Do not forget the many other faces and many other lives erased by sexism, diminished by our unwillingness to stand up for the just treatment of women. Do not forget China or less formal judgements. Do not forget No Name Woman. Do not forget Maxine Hong Kingston.



*1: For instance, check out this for-me-unbelievable page.



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